SUNDAY, NOV 23, 2014 08:00 AM EST

“We are starting to break down”: Why so many Americans feel traumatized: more in the comment letters (redacted)

From crippling income inequality to limitless government spying, modern American life has never felt so grim

LYNN STUART PARRAMORE

Recently Don Hazen, the executive editor of AlterNet, asked me to think about trauma in the context of America’s political system. As I sifted through my thoughts on this topic, I began to sense an enormous weight in my body and a paralysis in my brain. What could I say? What could I possibly offer to my fellow citizens? Or to myself? After six years writing about the financial crisis and its gruesome aftermath, I feel weariness and fear. When I close my eyes, I see a great ogre with gold coins spilling from his pockets and pollution spewing from his maw lurching toward me with increasing speed. I don’t know how to stop him.

Do you feel this way, too?

All along the watchtower, America’s alarms are sounding loudly. Voter turnout this last go-round was the worst in 72 years, as if we needed another sign that faith in democracy is waning. Is it really any wonder? When your choices range from the corrupt to the demented, how can you not feel that citizenship is a sham? Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page clearly shows that our lawmakers create policy based on the desires of monied elites while “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Our voices are not heard.

When our government does pay attention to us, the focus seems to be more on intimidation and control than addressing our needs. We are surveilled through our phones and laptops. As the New York Times has recently reported, a surge in undercover operations from a bewildering array of agencies has unleashed an army of unsupervised rogues poised to spy upon and victimize ordinary people rather than challenge the real predators who pillage at will. Aggressive and militarized police seem more likely to harm us than to protect us, even to mow us down if necessary.

Our policies amplify the harm. The mentally ill are locked away in solitary confinement, and even left there to die. Pregnant women in need of medical treatment are arrested and criminalized. Young people simply trying to get an education are crippled with debt. The elderly are left to wander the country in RVs in search of temporary jobs. If you’ve seen yourself as part of the middle class, you may have noticed cries of agony ripping through your ranks in ways that once seemed to belong to worlds far away.

I know that a serious illness could bankrupt me.

I am afraid I will never be able to afford to have a child.

My nightmare is to end up poor and abandoned in my golden years.

If you have fewer resources, the terror is even more immediate, the trauma more searing.

My father and brother are in prison.

I am afraid of being shot as I walk down the street.

I have never trusted any adult in my life.

A 2012 study of hospital patients in Atlanta’s inner-city communities showed that rates of post-traumatic stress are now on par with those of veterans returning from war zones. At least 1 out of 3 surveyed said they had experienced stress responses like flashbacks, persistent fear, a sense of alienation, and aggressive behavior. All across the country, in Detroit, New Orleans, and in what historian Louis Ferleger describes as economic “dead zones” — places where people have simply given up and sunk into “involuntary idleness” — the pain is written on slumped bodies and faces that have become masks of despair.

We are starting to break down.

When our alarm systems are set off too often, they start to malfunction, and we can end up in a state of hyper-vigilance, unable to properly assess the threats. It’s easy for the powerful to manipulate this tense condition and present an array of bogeymen to distract our attention, from immigrants to the unemployed, so that we focus our energy on the wrong enemy. Guns give a false sense of control, and hatred of those who do not look like us channels our impotent rage. Meanwhile, dietary supplements and prescription painkillers lure us into thinking that if we just find the right pill, we can shut off the sound of the sirens. Popular culture brings us movies with loud explosions that deafen us to what’s crashing all around us.

The 21st century, forged in the images of flames and bodies falling from the Twin Towers, has sputtered on with wars, financial ruin and crushing public policies that have left us ever more shaken, angry and afraid. At each crisis, people at the top have seized the opportunity to secure their positions and push the rest of us further down. They are not finished, not by a long shot.

Trauma is not just about experiencing wars and sexual violence, though there is plenty of that. Psychology researchers have discussed trauma as something intense that happens in your life that you can’t adequately respond to, and which causes you long-lasting negative effects. It’s something that leaves you fixated and stuck, acting out your unresolved feelings over and over.

Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t end with you: trauma comes with a very high rate of interest. The children of traumatized people carry the legacy of pain forward in their brains and bodies, becoming more vulnerable to disease, mental breakdown, addiction, and violence. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, emphasizes that it’s not just personal. Trauma occupies a space much bigger than our individual neurons: it’s political. If your parents lost their jobs, their home or their sense of security in the wake of the financial crisis, you will carry those wounds with you, even if conditions improve. Budget cuts to education and the social safety net produce trauma. Falling income produces trauma. Job insecurity produces trauma. Consider the following:

-Over 2.7 million children in America have a parent in lock-up, a situation considered traumatic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely to develop mental illness compared to the rest of the youth population, and more likely to experience a host of problems, including asthma, obesity, and academic issues.

-Unemployment is increasingly linked to suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Researchers find that losing a job is more likely to cause a person to take her own life today than in the past. Increased job insecurity and stagnant wages have heightened our senstitivy to economic distress over the last few decades.

-Up to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. over 60 exhibit PTSD symptoms. Homelessness among the elderly is increasing and is expected to leap 33 percent by 2020. Rates of economic hardship among elderly women, in particular, have leapt in recent years — up to 18 percent live in extreme poverty, and that number is expected to rise.

The effects of the misguided policies that contribute to these horrors ripple throughout our families, our communities, and ultimately, our entire society.

What then, are we supposed to do with our anguish? Part of our despair comes from participating in a system that is so damaging to so many, so brutal to our natures, both the physical environment and our internal selves. I eat a tomato knowing that the person who picked it may well have been an abused undocumented immigrant. I use products like Google knowing that my personal information is being used for purposes of profit and control. I vote for a candidate knowing that inaction and betrayal are the likely outcomes of putting this person in power. I can’t get away from it.

As I reflect on the scale of the trauma, I wonder if there is any point in writing about it at all. But isn’t part of our task as human beings to bear witness, to tell each other what we know? Talking about our feelings of guilt and helplessness reminds us of our connections to each other and our desire to confront injustices. It helps us to resist the temptation to withdraw into isolation and denial. Refusing to be silenced is one way to restore a sense of at least some vestige of agency.

I think we all have many selves, and I know that I have a self that is so angry and disgusted it simply wants to numb out, to immerse itself in the distractions of shallow consumer culture and look away from things it feels helpless to change.

But I have other selves, too. When I walk into Grand Central Terminal in New York City, with its soaring ceilings painted with the starry sky, I feel a sense of wonder at what Americans have achieved through common effort and recognition of our shared experience. I feel pangs, too, of the threats to those treasures, and the desire among many elites to privatize these public wonders and take away the hope that these spaces represent. But they remain, at least for now, as monuments of the possible. Their existence defies those who would subordinate and divide us.

When I hear the thunderous voice of the Reverend William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday Movement, I remember that outrage and anger can be transformative and help us to lift each other up and overcome our fears of taking on the powerful. Leaders like Martin Luther King are not simply voices from the past; they live among us.

When I do something as simple as nurture a friend in need, or let myself be drawn in by an artistic creation, or meet the eyes of a stranger with kindness, or plant a living tree, I’m intervening in the trauma and rewriting its trajectory — perhaps only a paragraph, but many paragraphs can make a page, and many pages, a volume.

The etymology of the word “trauma” is associated with the Greek word “wound.” To be human is to be wounded, and the ability to cope with our wounds is the essence of life’s journey. Without wounds, we can’t know our own strength and competence, and we can’t develop empathy for our fellow creatures. Moving from the static place of trauma to something fluid and transformative is the key. The trauma doesn’t go away, but it’s possible to bring it along in a way that helps us witness each other, hear each other, and help each other.

In his recent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the concept that helped South Africans deal with the pain of their society as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in progress. “Ubuntu” means shared human experience, the idea that “my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours.”

In the act of writing to myself and to you, I am reminded that we are bound, and that even if a dark age is looming, we can still pass the light between us. I can’t fool myself to think that the ogre is not coming — but walking to meet him together is much better than standing alone. Connectivity is the only intervention I know.

 

And here are some of the online responses…

  • As a foreigner, from my outside point of view, America is still an empire…

     Sadly in the US, daily life for the “99 percent” has become an ever-worsening experience in enduring learned helplessness…

  • I could go on for days, from the lying politicians who run on the “jobs” issue and then proceed to strip women of their reproductive rights, from the lying politicians who know they can’t win by honest means so they proceed to strip us of our voting rights and gerrymander to the point that they get voted in, from the lying politicians who don’t make any headway on removing big money from politics that is the root of all our problems. Yes, I am mighty disheartened these days.

  • There is so much poverty, people who have rotten teeth since dentistry is prohibitively expensive, high cost of food, and the food is mostly poison, millennial can’t afford housing, too expensive university/college costs, pollution, bought out Congress, spying on us by NSA, and a whole slew of demoralizing laws favoring predatory corporations such as in Florida it is illegal to live off the grid and apparently to feed the hungry, and in many states it is illegal to collect rain water…..give us a break.

  • It’s not “government spying” – all of our retailers and social networks do that quite effectively. It’s two decades of right wing propaganda to socially condition the conservative electorate that has destroyed America. Allowing the propaganda, giving it a false equivalency with journalism, is easily the worst thing we’ve done as a nation. We need to step up “disambiquation” and respond across media to penetrate the echo chamber effectively. Rove’s Playbook (Goebbels Principles), reinforced with political big box evangelical churches, are well defined and their manipulative tactics from conclusory talking points, innuendo, flipping / projection, fear and conspiracy mongering, ad hominem, othering, faux patriotism, Koch funded neo-John Birch industrialist edifying Libertarianism through the tea parties and heritage Action, race baiting, culture warring, with media saturation are easy to refute. PSA’s during football, commercials, primetime specials on major networks. The deprogramming of American conservative voters needs to begin NOW.

  • A political class that is not interested in governing and media that keeps reporting lies as if they are true

  • 500 billion dollar trade deficits with Communist China and India every year. 

  • Millions of third world immigrants to keep your wages down.
    Including the military contractors: 1.5 trillion dollars in corporate welfare.

  • Anyone who doesn’t understand political big box evangelicals reinforcing the right wing propaganda machine hasn’t been paying attention. From fear and conspiracy mongering, to isolation and stigmatization of “other,” these institutions rose to prominence with FOX News and the echo chamber, and manipulate the same socially conditioned right wing authoritarian submissives.

  • I call this phenomenon “Traumatic stress disorder” because there is no “post” anymore

  • Let’s just say, I will NOT be watching Face The Nation today.

  • The country is imploding. A recent Princeton University study sums it up: We’re no longer a democracy…we’re an oligarchy. A few wealthy individuals dictate the country’s direction. You only thought your vote mattered.

  • The American Dream? You have to be asleep to believe it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q

  • We’ve been breaking down for decades. We are now at a critical juncture. Democracy is on life support…and failing. It has been abused by and confused with Capitalism. Unbridled by deregulation, capitalism has run amok. Consumerism is unsustainable. We can’t continue to rape our environment and community. The culture of Me-First- I’ve-Got-Mine-Screw-You is taking humanity over a cliff. Saddly, Facsism, wearing the mask of security, will take over…is taking over. We are at the start of a Dark Age worse than antiquity’s.

  • Unprecedented levels of cruelty to animals.

  • Declining wages for men for thirty or forty years is the root cause of all the deterioration we are witnessing. Supply side economic theory has been applied and we see the results. 

  • There is an emerging awareness of the severe consequences of 40 years of a failed theory. The rebalancing will begin next. Pray that our ballot boxes haven’t been totally corrupted.

  • No, I don’t. We do a better job of looking after people than we have in my lifetime, although it still isn’t as good as it could be, and our worlds would be better off if there were more sense of noblesse oblige by the haves towards the have nots. Greed rules with large numbers of our people. Many people, who give away nothing except their relatively low taxes, feel put upon, and choose to do nothing else for their communities. Guarding their pile from the group is what they do. Medicare, Medicaid, senior housing, food stamps, nursing homes and other things weren’t there when I graduated from high school. Thanks to Democrats, they are now. I think the sense of “breaking down” comes from people feeling threatened, when the reality is, they aren’t. We practice “fear” politics, which in my life time began with Richard Nixon and Vietnam, and have continued ever since as a kind of national paranoia. Our country is a good place with lots of good people, and being afraid isn’t something that benefits us. Too many people believe the “sky is falling.” An example our society needs to address would be the 11 million illegal immigrants, who literally live in fear of a knock on their door. Something needs to be done to fix this situation short of deportation. Our country is better than this. Republicans have refused to address it. This is criminal, in my opinion, and the folks doing it are doing wrong to others that deserves punishment. Certainly not election to leadership op

  •  I like that the article mentioned how this feeling of helplessness is magnified for minorities. People who were already living in the margins feel the hard times exponentially. This is one of the original problems of this country, the ingrained, unquestioned racism that’s part of the american status quo. Folks, we can’t stand together if we allow ourselves to be divided, the plight of every woman, non-white person, non-heterosexual person, poor person in this country is the plight of our shared humanity. Think about how these plutocrats rally people to fight against their own interests using dog whistle tactics that use the marginal as scapegoats. We need to bring this shit out into the surface and start challenging the rocks of the past that many of us still carry. Today more than ever we need to handle the legacy of slavery, of misogyny, of the wars against the poor. We don’t need to carry these burdens any longer, we don’t need to eat shit, we can move towards an america that’s built on the shared humanity and decency we all share but we can’t do so if we hold on to bigotry. We have to bring this out into the surface and challenge those that would uphold it.

  • Circling the drain…all things must pass…

  • I think we not only let it but encourage it with our constant whining and sniping at each other. Our forefathers would be embarrassed at our petty me-first attitudes and our politicians and media feed off it. I believe we can turn the tide but each American needs to take ownership of their own actions and start talking solutions as we challenge those who take advantage of our apathy and emotion. We can’t expect others to act like grown ups if we don’t first.

  • It is so nice to see a world leader come out and make bold statement about Islamic Terrorism without worrying about political correctness. Do you support what Netanyahu says here about Radical ISLAM? (WESTERN CENTER FOR JOURNALISM) WJ

  • Predatory behavior allowed to control govt business …everyday we need to improve systems to deal with it but its really about people diving to the bottom.

  • It has been said ‘a soldier fights two wars, if he survives the battlefield, he will not survive the VA’. As a two tour Vietnam veteran with several symptoms of both agent orange exposure and PTSD the VA refused my claim stating “so you want the taxpayers money”. This rendered me mum and committed me to homelessness, wandering about the landscape as my health continued to deteriorate. Eventually ending up on a commune in Northern California I was nourished back to health by the community and I became a vegan. Though the commune was self sufficient, Governor reagon said we were “not contributing to society” and “not gainfully employed”, this he saw as grounds to send a team of officers from different police units and federal agencies to terrorize about 150 infants, children, women and men around 3:30 am. Seven attack helicopters, six armored personnel carriers and six amphibious vehicles all crammed to capacity with heavily armed officers on land we considered so sacred no vehicles were permitted, yet they drove through our huge organic garden as if to purposely destroy of growing food. Simultaneously busting down doors of dwellings they had mapped during near daily low intimidating flyovers, they terrorized our sleeping people with shotguns in our surprised faces. They arrested 25 only to find they had nothing to charge them with except one man who had an outstanding warrant form another state for possession of cannabis. All were forced to abandon The Land we called Ahimsa, Sanskrit for nonviolence. Within one week the “cleanup crew” came with bulldozers and flattened all homes. Homeless again, one couldn’t stop thinking “so this is what I destroyed my health and future for”? With no address, no food stamps, eventually with help I was able to get awarded a minimal disability of $108 per month because heavy artillery had deafened me and caused a constant ringing in my ears. Don’t laugh, as a vegan I was able to survive with a sleeping bag, pup tent, books and long periods of meditation and yoga on that penance. Finding a wife for two of these intervening decades that ended with a divorce, again I was homeless but with a car to sleep in on extremely cold nights. Landing a seasonal job in ’98 I was able to rent an apartment, recover my mental and physical health and socialize. The job ended, like many others, in 2008. Again homeless. A social worker of sorts brought me to the local VA and they found my hearing loss was greater, increasing my benefits threefold to a less laughable amount, added to my recent SS benefits I could again afford a cheap apartment. In September I received a letter from the VA informing me an overpayment of $10,280 had occurred because I drew that amount in unemployment benefits in ’09 and ’10 and “we will begin collection of that amount in December ’14” unless “we receive a request for waiver within 30 days of this notice”. Hastily I collected all the information they wanted – monthly total income and expenses, how much I have in my bank account, what I own and worth plus how much money I have on hand – within 20 days and mailed the completed form they provided. Stealthily they took half of the $400 beginning in October and again this November, during at least 20 phone calls in October to the VA regional office a recording told me “due to the unusual volume of calls we cannot accept your call” and the call is ended by them. One would suspect that thousands of Veterans were tying up the phones. Emails were not answered either. I do odd jobs related to gardening to make up for the negative balance between income and expenses but not enough to keep my apartment without the 200 dollars from the VA. So one would need to answer your query in the affirmative. Sorry for the long diatribe.

  • Heck no. Hot and cold running water, internet access, heat, a/c, stable power supply, 8 grocery and 12 restaurants within 10 miles, car, literally what is there to complain about. Most american live better than people have in all history of mankind. Stop being such whiny babies about it.

  • Don’t mourn. Organize.

  • Organize to become community self sufficient.

  • Lost my husband to cancer this year. Worked a job that’s not so great for the insurance since he was self employed. Even with insurance I’m financially devastated not to mention what his absence after 40 years of marriage has done to this family. I’m just tired

  • Rather sounds like how people describe an asylum. Makes me think that the people in charge are similar as would be in charge of a place for the mentally ill. Hopelessness becomes not about what people are failing to do to improve things and a lack of feeling of purpose, but an assault upon everyone’s imperfection.

  • I very definitely feel the walls closing in. The hate and hypocrisy reminds me of the 1950s and 1960s. Those were not good times.

  • The wrong reaction to 9/11/2001 is how we got here. The Supreme Court ruling Dubya into office is how we got here. The Republican voter fraud in OH in 2004 keeping Dubya in office is how we got here. Trading privacy and civil rights out of fear for so-called safety measures by Homeland Security, the CIA, and the FBI is how we got here. Deregulation of Wall Street and believing in real estate bubbles is how we got here. The Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United that corporations are persons allowing more and more money into political campaigns is how we got here. Dreaming that Obama was a Progressive Democrat is how we got here. Making prisons a private and profitable venture is how we got here. A media owned by the 1% which is no longer independent journalism is how we got here. Media coverage of merely two political parties instead of the entire spectrum is how we got here. Allowing religious fundamentalists to influence beyond their knowledge depth and province is how we got here.

  • I think we’re starting to break down because people realize that everybody at the top both in wealth and in politics is only looking out for themselves and their own wealth. Nobody in politics or corporations is looking out for the little guy and the health of the entire nation. It reminds me of what the pope at at the fall of Roman when he realized Rome could no longer protect the citizens from barbarism invasion he said something like “you’re all on your own now.” Today it’s every man for himself, and the people who are saying this are supposedly Christian. We no longer have a moral center as a nation or as a people. It’s all about the almighty dollar.

  • I have felt traumatized ever sense I came home from the service in 1966. There are way to many people “haters” with misdirected anger and hate in America that feel the right to hate on anyone of thing. A young teenage girl in San Francisco spit on….

  • We blame the government and big corporations when in reality it’s our fault. We as Americans have allowed ourselves to be bullied and dumbed down. We allow them to take advantage of us because we continue to feed the beast that’s ripping us apart…..

  • It’s not just US, it’s the whole world that’s in terrible trouble one way or another.  (response:  Speak for yourself-don’t lump other countries in with your lot. We’re doing fine, if you’d ever take the time to ask…)

  • I am reminded that we are bound, and that even if a dark age is looming, we can still pass the light between us”, poetic and powerful words by Lynn Stuart Parramore of Alternet.

  • Instead of reading the usual socialist garbage from Salon.com, I suggest reading this week’s Fareed Zakaria’s “America’s Advantages Over The Rest of the World” posted in the Washington Post.http://www.washingtonpost.com/…/eb91209a-70f3-11e4-ad12…

  • Ubuntu: This is possibly the most meaningful piece I have read all year! I hope you’ll make time to read it, too. Together we can make hope.

 

From crippling income inequality to limitless government spying, modern American life has never felt so grim

LYNN STUART PARRAMORE

Recently Don Hazen, the executive editor of AlterNet, asked me to think about trauma in the context of America’s political system. As I sifted through my thoughts on this topic, I began to sense an enormous weight in my body and a paralysis in my brain. What could I say? What could I possibly offer to my fellow citizens? Or to myself? After six years writing about the financial crisis and its gruesome aftermath, I feel weariness and fear. When I close my eyes, I see a great ogre with gold coins spilling from his pockets and pollution spewing from his maw lurching toward me with increasing speed. I don’t know how to stop him.

Do you feel this way, too?

All along the watchtower, America’s alarms are sounding loudly. Voter turnout this last go-round was the worst in 72 years, as if we needed another sign that faith in democracy is waning. Is it really any wonder? When your choices range from the corrupt to the demented, how can you not feel that citizenship is a sham? Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page clearly shows that our lawmakers create policy based on the desires of monied elites while “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Our voices are not heard.

When our government does pay attention to us, the focus seems to be more on intimidation and control than addressing our needs. We are surveilled through our phones and laptops. As the New York Times has recently reported, a surge in undercover operations from a bewildering array of agencies has unleashed an army of unsupervised rogues poised to spy upon and victimize ordinary people rather than challenge the real predators who pillage at will. Aggressive and militarized police seem more likely to harm us than to protect us, even to mow us down if necessary.

Our policies amplify the harm. The mentally ill are locked away in solitary confinement, and even left there to die. Pregnant women in need of medical treatment are arrested and criminalized. Young people simply trying to get an education are crippled with debt. The elderly are left to wander the country in RVs in search of temporary jobs. If you’ve seen yourself as part of the middle class, you may have noticed cries of agony ripping through your ranks in ways that once seemed to belong to worlds far away.

I know that a serious illness could bankrupt me.

I am afraid I will never be able to afford to have a child.

My nightmare is to end up poor and abandoned in my golden years.

If you have fewer resources, the terror is even more immediate, the trauma more searing.

My father and brother are in prison.

I am afraid of being shot as I walk down the street.

I have never trusted any adult in my life.

A 2012 study of hospital patients in Atlanta’s inner-city communities showed that rates of post-traumatic stress are now on par with those of veterans returning from war zones. At least 1 out of 3 surveyed said they had experienced stress responses like flashbacks, persistent fear, a sense of alienation, and aggressive behavior. All across the country, in Detroit, New Orleans, and in what historian Louis Ferleger describes as economic “dead zones” — places where people have simply given up and sunk into “involuntary idleness” — the pain is written on slumped bodies and faces that have become masks of despair.

We are starting to break down.

When our alarm systems are set off too often, they start to malfunction, and we can end up in a state of hyper-vigilance, unable to properly assess the threats. It’s easy for the powerful to manipulate this tense condition and present an array of bogeymen to distract our attention, from immigrants to the unemployed, so that we focus our energy on the wrong enemy. Guns give a false sense of control, and hatred of those who do not look like us channels our impotent rage. Meanwhile, dietary supplements and prescription painkillers lure us into thinking that if we just find the right pill, we can shut off the sound of the sirens. Popular culture brings us movies with loud explosions that deafen us to what’s crashing all around us.

The 21st century, forged in the images of flames and bodies falling from the Twin Towers, has sputtered on with wars, financial ruin and crushing public policies that have left us ever more shaken, angry and afraid. At each crisis, people at the top have seized the opportunity to secure their positions and push the rest of us further down. They are not finished, not by a long shot.

Trauma is not just about experiencing wars and sexual violence, though there is plenty of that. Psychology researchers have discussed trauma as something intense that happens in your life that you can’t adequately respond to, and which causes you long-lasting negative effects. It’s something that leaves you fixated and stuck, acting out your unresolved feelings over and over.

Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t end with you: trauma comes with a very high rate of interest. The children of traumatized people carry the legacy of pain forward in their brains and bodies, becoming more vulnerable to disease, mental breakdown, addiction, and violence. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, an expert on trauma, emphasizes that it’s not just personal. Trauma occupies a space much bigger than our individual neurons: it’s political. If your parents lost their jobs, their home or their sense of security in the wake of the financial crisis, you will carry those wounds with you, even if conditions improve. Budget cuts to education and the social safety net produce trauma. Falling income produces trauma. Job insecurity produces trauma. Consider the following:

-Over 2.7 million children in America have a parent in lock-up, a situation considered traumatic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are twice as likely to develop mental illness compared to the rest of the youth population, and more likely to experience a host of problems, including asthma, obesity, and academic issues.

-Unemployment is increasingly linked to suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Researchers find that losing a job is more likely to cause a person to take her own life today than in the past. Increased job insecurity and stagnant wages have heightened our senstitivy to economic distress over the last few decades.

-Up to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. over 60 exhibit PTSD symptoms. Homelessness among the elderly is increasing and is expected to leap 33 percent by 2020. Rates of economic hardship among elderly women, in particular, have leapt in recent years — up to 18 percent live in extreme poverty, and that number is expected to rise.

The effects of the misguided policies that contribute to these horrors ripple throughout our families, our communities, and ultimately, our entire society.

What then, are we supposed to do with our anguish? Part of our despair comes from participating in a system that is so damaging to so many, so brutal to our natures, both the physical environment and our internal selves. I eat a tomato knowing that the person who picked it may well have been an abused undocumented immigrant. I use products like Google knowing that my personal information is being used for purposes of profit and control. I vote for a candidate knowing that inaction and betrayal are the likely outcomes of putting this person in power. I can’t get away from it.

As I reflect on the scale of the trauma, I wonder if there is any point in writing about it at all. But isn’t part of our task as human beings to bear witness, to tell each other what we know? Talking about our feelings of guilt and helplessness reminds us of our connections to each other and our desire to confront injustices. It helps us to resist the temptation to withdraw into isolation and denial. Refusing to be silenced is one way to restore a sense of at least some vestige of agency.

I think we all have many selves, and I know that I have a self that is so angry and disgusted it simply wants to numb out, to immerse itself in the distractions of shallow consumer culture and look away from things it feels helpless to change.

But I have other selves, too. When I walk into Grand Central Terminal in New York City, with its soaring ceilings painted with the starry sky, I feel a sense of wonder at what Americans have achieved through common effort and recognition of our shared experience. I feel pangs, too, of the threats to those treasures, and the desire among many elites to privatize these public wonders and take away the hope that these spaces represent. But they remain, at least for now, as monuments of the possible. Their existence defies those who would subordinate and divide us.

When I hear the thunderous voice of the Reverend William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday Movement, I remember that outrage and anger can be transformative and help us to lift each other up and overcome our fears of taking on the powerful. Leaders like Martin Luther King are not simply voices from the past; they live among us.

When I do something as simple as nurture a friend in need, or let myself be drawn in by an artistic creation, or meet the eyes of a stranger with kindness, or plant a living tree, I’m intervening in the trauma and rewriting its trajectory — perhaps only a paragraph, but many paragraphs can make a page, and many pages, a volume.

The etymology of the word “trauma” is associated with the Greek word “wound.” To be human is to be wounded, and the ability to cope with our wounds is the essence of life’s journey. Without wounds, we can’t know our own strength and competence, and we can’t develop empathy for our fellow creatures. Moving from the static place of trauma to something fluid and transformative is the key. The trauma doesn’t go away, but it’s possible to bring it along in a way that helps us witness each other, hear each other, and help each other.

In his recent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes the concept that helped South Africans deal with the pain of their society as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in progress. “Ubuntu” means shared human experience, the idea that “my humanity is inextricably bound up with yours.”

In the act of writing to myself and to you, I am reminded that we are bound, and that even if a dark age is looming, we can still pass the light between us. I can’t fool myself to think that the ogre is not coming — but walking to meet him together is much better than standing alone. Connectivity is the only intervention I know.

 

And here are some of the online responses…

  • As a foreigner, from my outside point of view, America is still an empire…
     Sadly in the US, daily life for the “99 percent” has become an ever-worsening experience in enduring learned helplessness…
  • I could go on for days, from the lying politicians who run on the “jobs” issue and then proceed to strip women of their reproductive rights, from the lying politicians who know they can’t win by honest means so they proceed to strip us of our voting rights and gerrymander to the point that they get voted in, from the lying politicians who don’t make any headway on removing big money from politics that is the root of all our problems. Yes, I am mighty disheartened these days.
  • There is so much poverty, people who have rotten teeth since dentistry is prohibitively expensive, high cost of food, and the food is mostly poison, millennial can’t afford housing, too expensive university/college costs, pollution, bought out Congress, spying on us by NSA, and a whole slew of demoralizing laws favoring predatory corporations such as in Florida it is illegal to live off the grid and apparently to feed the hungry, and in many states it is illegal to collect rain water…..give us a break.
  • It’s not “government spying” – all of our retailers and social networks do that quite effectively. It’s two decades of right wing propaganda to socially condition the conservative electorate that has destroyed America. Allowing the propaganda, giving it a false equivalency with journalism, is easily the worst thing we’ve done as a nation. We need to step up “disambiquation” and respond across media to penetrate the echo chamber effectively. Rove’s Playbook (Goebbels Principles), reinforced with political big box evangelical churches, are well defined and their manipulative tactics from conclusory talking points, innuendo, flipping / projection, fear and conspiracy mongering, ad hominem, othering, faux patriotism, Koch funded neo-John Birch industrialist edifying Libertarianism through the tea parties and heritage Action, race baiting, culture warring, with media saturation are easy to refute. PSA’s during football, commercials, primetime specials on major networks. The deprogramming of American conservative voters needs to begin NOW.
  • A political class that is not interested in governing and media that keeps reporting lies as if they are true
  • 500 billion dollar trade deficits with Communist China and India every year. 
  • Millions of third world immigrants to keep your wages down.
    Including the military contractors: 1.5 trillion dollars in corporate welfare.
  • Anyone who doesn’t understand political big box evangelicals reinforcing the right wing propaganda machine hasn’t been paying attention. From fear and conspiracy mongering, to isolation and stigmatization of “other,” these institutions rose to prominence with FOX News and the echo chamber, and manipulate the same socially conditioned right wing authoritarian submissives.
  • I call this phenomenon “Traumatic stress disorder” because there is no “post” anymore
  • Let’s just say, I will NOT be watching Face The Nation today.
  • The country is imploding. A recent Princeton University study sums it up: We’re no longer a democracy…we’re an oligarchy. A few wealthy individuals dictate the country’s direction. You only thought your vote mattered.
  • The American Dream? You have to be asleep to believe it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q
  • We’ve been breaking down for decades. We are now at a critical juncture. Democracy is on life support…and failing. It has been abused by and confused with Capitalism. Unbridled by deregulation, capitalism has run amok. Consumerism is unsustainable. We can’t continue to rape our environment and community. The culture of Me-First- I’ve-Got-Mine-Screw-You is taking humanity over a cliff. Saddly, Facsism, wearing the mask of security, will take over…is taking over. We are at the start of a Dark Age worse than antiquity’s.
  • Unprecedented levels of cruelty to animals.
  • Declining wages for men for thirty or forty years is the root cause of all the deterioration we are witnessing. Supply side economic theory has been applied and we see the results. 
  • There is an emerging awareness of the severe consequences of 40 years of a failed theory. The rebalancing will begin next. Pray that our ballot boxes haven’t been totally corrupted.
  • No, I don’t. We do a better job of looking after people than we have in my lifetime, although it still isn’t as good as it could be, and our worlds would be better off if there were more sense of noblesse oblige by the haves towards the have nots. Greed rules with large numbers of our people. Many people, who give away nothing except their relatively low taxes, feel put upon, and choose to do nothing else for their communities. Guarding their pile from the group is what they do. Medicare, Medicaid, senior housing, food stamps, nursing homes and other things weren’t there when I graduated from high school. Thanks to Democrats, they are now. I think the sense of “breaking down” comes from people feeling threatened, when the reality is, they aren’t. We practice “fear” politics, which in my life time began with Richard Nixon and Vietnam, and have continued ever since as a kind of national paranoia. Our country is a good place with lots of good people, and being afraid isn’t something that benefits us. Too many people believe the “sky is falling.” An example our society needs to address would be the 11 million illegal immigrants, who literally live in fear of a knock on their door. Something needs to be done to fix this situation short of deportation. Our country is better than this. Republicans have refused to address it. This is criminal, in my opinion, and the folks doing it are doing wrong to others that deserves punishment. Certainly not election to leadership op
  •  I like that the article mentioned how this feeling of helplessness is magnified for minorities. People who were already living in the margins feel the hard times exponentially. This is one of the original problems of this country, the ingrained, unquestioned racism that’s part of the american status quo. Folks, we can’t stand together if we allow ourselves to be divided, the plight of every woman, non-white person, non-heterosexual person, poor person in this country is the plight of our shared humanity. Think about how these plutocrats rally people to fight against their own interests using dog whistle tactics that use the marginal as scapegoats. We need to bring this shit out into the surface and start challenging the rocks of the past that many of us still carry. Today more than ever we need to handle the legacy of slavery, of misogyny, of the wars against the poor. We don’t need to carry these burdens any longer, we don’t need to eat shit, we can move towards an america that’s built on the shared humanity and decency we all share but we can’t do so if we hold on to bigotry. We have to bring this out into the surface and challenge those that would uphold it.
  • Circling the drain…all things must pass…
  • I think we not only let it but encourage it with our constant whining and sniping at each other. Our forefathers would be embarrassed at our petty me-first attitudes and our politicians and media feed off it. I believe we can turn the tide but each American needs to take ownership of their own actions and start talking solutions as we challenge those who take advantage of our apathy and emotion. We can’t expect others to act like grown ups if we don’t first.
  • It is so nice to see a world leader come out and make bold statement about Islamic Terrorism without worrying about political correctness. Do you support what Netanyahu says here about Radical ISLAM? (WESTERN CENTER FOR JOURNALISM) WJ
  • Predatory behavior allowed to control govt business …everyday we need to improve systems to deal with it but its really about people diving to the bottom.
  • It has been said ‘a soldier fights two wars, if he survives the battlefield, he will not survive the VA’. As a two tour Vietnam veteran with several symptoms of both agent orange exposure and PTSD the VA refused my claim stating “so you want the taxpayers money”. This rendered me mum and committed me to homelessness, wandering about the landscape as my health continued to deteriorate. Eventually ending up on a commune in Northern California I was nourished back to health by the community and I became a vegan. Though the commune was self sufficient, Governor reagon said we were “not contributing to society” and “not gainfully employed”, this he saw as grounds to send a team of officers from different police units and federal agencies to terrorize about 150 infants, children, women and men around 3:30 am. Seven attack helicopters, six armored personnel carriers and six amphibious vehicles all crammed to capacity with heavily armed officers on land we considered so sacred no vehicles were permitted, yet they drove through our huge organic garden as if to purposely destroy of growing food. Simultaneously busting down doors of dwellings they had mapped during near daily low intimidating flyovers, they terrorized our sleeping people with shotguns in our surprised faces. They arrested 25 only to find they had nothing to charge them with except one man who had an outstanding warrant form another state for possession of cannabis. All were forced to abandon The Land we called Ahimsa, Sanskrit for nonviolence. Within one week the “cleanup crew” came with bulldozers and flattened all homes. Homeless again, one couldn’t stop thinking “so this is what I destroyed my health and future for”? With no address, no food stamps, eventually with help I was able to get awarded a minimal disability of $108 per month because heavy artillery had deafened me and caused a constant ringing in my ears. Don’t laugh, as a vegan I was able to survive with a sleeping bag, pup tent, books and long periods of meditation and yoga on that penance. Finding a wife for two of these intervening decades that ended with a divorce, again I was homeless but with a car to sleep in on extremely cold nights. Landing a seasonal job in ’98 I was able to rent an apartment, recover my mental and physical health and socialize. The job ended, like many others, in 2008. Again homeless. A social worker of sorts brought me to the local VA and they found my hearing loss was greater, increasing my benefits threefold to a less laughable amount, added to my recent SS benefits I could again afford a cheap apartment. In September I received a letter from the VA informing me an overpayment of $10,280 had occurred because I drew that amount in unemployment benefits in ’09 and ’10 and “we will begin collection of that amount in December ’14” unless “we receive a request for waiver within 30 days of this notice”. Hastily I collected all the information they wanted – monthly total income and expenses, how much I have in my bank account, what I own and worth plus how much money I have on hand – within 20 days and mailed the completed form they provided. Stealthily they took half of the $400 beginning in October and again this November, during at least 20 phone calls in October to the VA regional office a recording told me “due to the unusual volume of calls we cannot accept your call” and the call is ended by them. One would suspect that thousands of Veterans were tying up the phones. Emails were not answered either. I do odd jobs related to gardening to make up for the negative balance between income and expenses but not enough to keep my apartment without the 200 dollars from the VA. So one would need to answer your query in the affirmative. Sorry for the long diatribe.
  • Heck no. Hot and cold running water, internet access, heat, a/c, stable power supply, 8 grocery and 12 restaurants within 10 miles, car, literally what is there to complain about. Most american live better than people have in all history of mankind. Stop being such whiny babies about it.
  • Don’t mourn. Organize.
  • Organize to become community self sufficient.
  • Lost my husband to cancer this year. Worked a job that’s not so great for the insurance since he was self employed. Even with insurance I’m financially devastated not to mention what his absence after 40 years of marriage has done to this family. I’m just tired
  • Rather sounds like how people describe an asylum. Makes me think that the people in charge are similar as would be in charge of a place for the mentally ill. Hopelessness becomes not about what people are failing to do to improve things and a lack of feeling of purpose, but an assault upon everyone’s imperfection.
  • I very definitely feel the walls closing in. The hate and hypocrisy reminds me of the 1950s and 1960s. Those were not good times.
  • The wrong reaction to 9/11/2001 is how we got here. The Supreme Court ruling Dubya into office is how we got here. The Republican voter fraud in OH in 2004 keeping Dubya in office is how we got here. Trading privacy and civil rights out of fear for so-called safety measures by Homeland Security, the CIA, and the FBI is how we got here. Deregulation of Wall Street and believing in real estate bubbles is how we got here. The Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United that corporations are persons allowing more and more money into political campaigns is how we got here. Dreaming that Obama was a Progressive Democrat is how we got here. Making prisons a private and profitable venture is how we got here. A media owned by the 1% which is no longer independent journalism is how we got here. Media coverage of merely two political parties instead of the entire spectrum is how we got here. Allowing religious fundamentalists to influence beyond their knowledge depth and province is how we got here.
  • I think we’re starting to break down because people realize that everybody at the top both in wealth and in politics is only looking out for themselves and their own wealth. Nobody in politics or corporations is looking out for the little guy and the health of the entire nation. It reminds me of what the pope at at the fall of Roman when he realized Rome could no longer protect the citizens from barbarism invasion he said something like “you’re all on your own now.” Today it’s every man for himself, and the people who are saying this are supposedly Christian. We no longer have a moral center as a nation or as a people. It’s all about the almighty dollar.
  • I have felt traumatized ever sense I came home from the service in 1966. There are way to many people “haters” with misdirected anger and hate in America that feel the right to hate on anyone of thing. A young teenage girl in San Francisco spit on….
  • We blame the government and big corporations when in reality it’s our fault. We as Americans have allowed ourselves to be bullied and dumbed down. We allow them to take advantage of us because we continue to feed the beast that’s ripping us apart…..
  • It’s not just US, it’s the whole world that’s in terrible trouble one way or another.  (response:  Speak for yourself-don’t lump other countries in with your lot. We’re doing fine, if you’d ever take the time to ask…
  • …I am reminded that we are bound, and that even if a dark age is looming, we can still pass the light between us”, poetic and powerful words by Lynn Stuart Parramore of Alternet.
  • Instead of reading the usual socialist garbage from Salon.com, I suggest reading this week’s Fareed Zakaria’s “America’s Advantages Over The Rest of the World” posted in the Washington Post.http://www.washingtonpost.com/…/eb91209a-70f3-11e4-ad12…
  • Ubuntu: This is possibly the most meaningful piece I have read all year! I hope you’ll make time to read it, too. Together we can make hope.
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